Zapatista women receive Marichuy, the Indigenous spokeswoman of the National Indigenous Congress in 2018. (Daliri Oropeza/Pie de Página)

In the face of assassinations and paramilitary terror, the Zapatista struggle for sovereignty continues

27 years after the Zapatista uprising in Mexico, Indigenous land defenders are still fighting for justice and autonomy — even if it means risking their lives.
Zapatista women receive Marichuy, the Indigenous spokeswoman of the National Indigenous Congress in 2018. (Daliri Oropeza/Pie de Página)

Chiapas, a state in southeastern Mexico bordering Guatemala, was the epicenter of the 1994 Zapatista uprising. On Jan. 1,1994 — the effective date of the North American Free Trade Agreement — the insurgents of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, or EZLN, seized five county towns in the state at dawn, declaring a struggle for “work, land, shelter, food, health, education, independence, freedom, democracy, justice and peace.” 

Until this public appearance, the EZLN had spent 10 years clandestinely in the Lacandon Jungle preparing with training and political education. Most of the Zapatistas were Mayas of different ethnic groups from Chiapas, poor peasants and producers of corn, coffee or cattle, who depended on the land for survival. The insurgents claimed ownership of the lands for the original Indigenous peoples, a more equitable distribution of wealth and the participation of different ethnic groups in the organization of the state and the country. 

For this, the EZLN occupied numerous private properties, mostly cattle ranches or coffee plantations of non-Indigenous landowners, this way impacting landowner elites’ control over local politics. They also took over 38 municipalities in the state of Chiapas with the support of the communities who at that time agreed to collaborate with the revolutionary project. This is how the Zapatista Rebel Autonomous Municipalities, or MAREZ, were born, which have subsequently organized to build alternatives for coexistence and self-government under the protection of the EZLN. Since 2003, they are under the coordination of the “Caracol” of the area, where the headquarters of self-government and organization between the municipalities are located.

Headquarters for the for the Zapatista Rebel Autonomous Municipalities (MAREZ) in the Los Altos area of Chiapas, México. (WNV/Mayu Ruiz Rull)

Following the uprising, the federal government rapidly sent an army to suppress the rebellion. After 11 days of armed confrontations, a ceasefire was established, beginning a dialogue that led to the signing of the San Andrés Accords in February 1996. The Accords recognized the rights of Indigenous peoples to develop their specific forms of social, cultural, political and economic organization and the right to self-determination exercised within a framework of autonomy for Indigenous peoples. However, the federal government did not apply any legal reforms for its effective implementation and eventually asked for modifications to the proposed law that emptied it of content. The Zapatistas withdrew from the negotiations in January 1997 and established compliance with the San Andrés Accords as one of the three conditions to return to the dialogue table, along with the withdrawal of the army from Zapatista areas and the release of political prisoners.

At the same time, the military offensive and harassment against Zapatista communities did not stop in Chiapas. The federal and local governments, with the support of landowners and ranchers, organized paramilitary forces trained by the army. These military occupations resulted in the displacement and killings of thousands of people. One of the most brutal episodes, known as the Acteal Massacre, took place on Dec. 22, 1997, when a group of paramilitaries called Máscara Roja murdered 45 Mayan men, women and children that were suspected of supporting the Zapatista movement. 

Harassment of Zapatista support bases in Chiapas

Since the EZLN uprising in 1994, the number of armed security forces in the Chiapas region has escalated. The army’s presence has not prevented paramilitary groups from harassing Indigenous and peasant communities. On the contrary, relations between armed bodies and the impunity with which they commit their actions has been documented continuously by human rights defenders. 

Back in 1994, the Ministry of Defense stated in its “Chiapas 94 Campaign Plan” the goal to “secretly organize certain sectors of the civilian population … characterized by a high patriotic sense,” as well as to “train and support the self-defense forces or other paramilitary organizations.” Following its implementation in 1995 to 1998, crimes against humanity were systematically committed against the civilian population by elements of the Mexican Armed Forces and by paramilitary groups in different regions of the state of Chiapas. Many cases of executions, disappearances, tortures and forced displacement are still unresolved, and a climate of impunity surrounding human rights violations prevails.

This July, Simón Pedro Pérez López was shot in the head while shopping with one of his four children in the market of Simojovel. This town is located in Los Altos, a predominantly Indigenous and rural region in Chiapas. During the last six years, the presence of criminal groups seeking control of the territory has impeded the maintenance of peace within communities. The murder of the Indigenous Maya Simón Pedro is linked to his denouncing the criminal actions as a human rights defender. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights reports that since July 5, 2021, at least 12 people have been murdered (including a child and the execution of Simón Pedro Pérez López), a person has gone missing and a woman and a child were injured with a firearm. The Human Rights Center Fray Bartolomé de las Casas blames a criminal group linked to municipal public officials in the neighboring city of Pantelhó. The center, which has been documenting and denouncing human rights violations since 1994, estimates that there are approximately 3,200 people forcibly displaced by the conflict in the area, including the survivors of the Acteal massacre in 1997. 

Civil organizations denounce the inaction of the state in the face of this humanitarian crisis of displaced persons and the context of systematic and structural violations, documented last December 2020 by a Civil Observation Mission of the National Network “All Rights for Everyone.” The HHRR Network denounces the ineffectiveness of the public security forces in stopping the violence, and the State Prosecutor’s Office’s lack of action when it comes to curbing paramilitary groups that pose a latent risk for communities and for human rights defenders.

Another area of the region with a high increase in conflict is the MAREZ Lucio Cabañas, located in the municipality of Patria Nueva (officially, the city of Ocosingo) and belonging to Caracol 10 “Flourishing the rebel seed.” There is a small community in Lucio Cabañas called Nuevo San Gregorio where six Zapatista families have been cornered since November 2019, when a group nicknamed the “group of 40” invaded and surrounded a significant amount of the collective lands recovered in 1994 by the EZLN where they live. The group of 40 is made up of 10 families linked to local political parties in the municipality of Huixtán. Several members are former police officers, some have communal landholding and ecclesial positions, and others are former landowners of the area. The group’s leaders include Nicolás Pérez Pérez, former Party of the Democratic Revolution councilor in Huixtán and owner of about 150 acres of land, and Sebastián Bolom Ara, former civil servant in Huixtán.

As a consequence of their activities, they have prevented the Zapatista families from planting and harvesting their milpa. The deprivation of the main source for self-sustenance causes hunger and forces community members to either buy or depend on external assistance to feed themselves. This is a significant problem for people who are one with the land and who eat from working it. Today, a constant climate of tension persists because of harassment by the group of 40. Group members have sabotaged water sources and stolen livestock, claiming they are recovering their land from the Zapatistas. The group’s ultimate goal is breaking 27 years of Zapatista resistance in the area. 

Zapatista Mayan Tsotsil authorities at “CompARTE,” a Zapatista international arts festival, in 2017. (Daliri Oropeza/ Pie de Página)

Faced with the increasing acts of aggressions and the need of the Zapatista communities to return to work their lands, various organizations, groups and individuals belonging to La Sexta (a network of national and international solidarity with the Zapatista cause named after the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle) departed on two occasions — from October 2020 to February 2021 — to the Lucio Cabañas municipality. The members of the Caravan of Solidarity and Documentation acted as human rights observers, delivered humanitarian aid and completed a detailed report to document and raise awareness of the situation in Nuevo San Gregorio and Moisés Gandhi Zapatista Autonomous Communities.

“We feel kidnapped in our own land,” said a Nuevo San Gregorio resident before the visit of the caravan on Oct. 29. In addition to Nuevo San Gregorio, the caravan visited eight endangered Maya communities in the region of Moisés Gandhi, within the municipality of Lucio Cabañas. In the caravan report, these Zapatista supporters relate that in April 2019 members of the Regional Organization of Coffee Growers of Ocosingo, or ORCAO, broke in, enclosed community lands, and stole crops and construction material. 

The origin of the conflict dates back to 2001 when the ORCAO, which in 1994 had participated in the uprising by taking farms from landowners in the region, abandoned the Zapatista cause to take advantage of the programs launched by Mexican government. These programs allowed individuals to title communal land rights and privatize them, even if they had been inhabited since the uprising. The government strategy caused a considerable loss among the civil support bases of the EZLN and, still in many regions of Chiapas, relations between the Zapatistas and those who are not (or no longer) Zapatistas are tense.

The harassment has escalated exponentially since the beginning of 2020 in the form of threats, intimidation, physical attacks, burning of crops, destruction in the Autonomous high school and constant detonations of firearms against the community houses. On Aug. 22, 2020, the ORCAO looted a store and two Zapatista coffee warehouses on the Cuxuljá cruise, setting them on fire next to the Zapatista dining room. The attacks on Moisés Gandhi culminated in the kidnapping, on Nov. 8, 2020, of the Zapatista Félix López Hernández. According to civil organizations, Hernández was “tied up, they put a belt around his neck and were about to kill him” before he was released due to international pressure.

Integral war of attrition against the people

The caravan’s report identifies different mechanisms of violence (the invasion of lands that have sustained the communities for 27 years, the enclosure depriving access to crops, water and education, threatening in turn food sovereignty and the autonomous economy) perpetrated by the ORCAO and the group of 40 in Lucio Cabañas municipality. In their view, the violence focuses on fragmenting the resistance and permanence of Zapatista autonomy by imposing a daily and permanent state of war on their communities.

There are more subtle strategies taking place aimed at weakening the bases of support for the autonomous Zapatista project and all Indigenous experiences of autonomy that oppose the dispossession of their territories and function outside the capitalist imperialist system. They are counterinsurgency tactics within what La Sexta organizations call an “integral war of attrition, because they seek to cover all areas of life through economic, psychological, propaganda, sociocultural and political mechanisms.” In the long term, the aim is to tire the civilian population’s resistance.

At present, the leftist and Indigenous discourse that led current president Antonio Manuel Lopez Obrador, or AMLO, to win the Mexican 2018 elections has been losing credibility. Its “Fourth Transformation,” also known as 4T, continues with the deployment of social programs that help privatize communal land and welfare subsidies tied to national Banco Azteca loans that introduce the peasant population in mercantile and individualist logics so that they abandon the resistance. AMLO’s 4T also includes the imposition of megaprojects throughout the country that require the dispossession of territories for looting and extractivism: the Mayan Train, the transoceanic corridor, special economic zones for foreign enterprises and large-scale mining operations are some examples. 

To defend these objectives, AMLO has provided a large amount of public and private resources to the army while expanding their functions, and replaced the federal police for the new, much more militarized National Guard in 2019. According to Amnesty International, the AMLO administration has “deployed more military personnel in the public security strategy than the two previous presidential administrations.” The National Guard is deployed in areas where there is a strong presence of social movements and organizations opposing the megaprojects across the country and around the Lacandona area where the experiences of Zapatista autonomy are located. They also serve to secure the Mexican southern border, where Amnesty International reports that migrants meet excessive use of force and arbitrary detentions, saying, “National Guard officials used tear gas during an operation to detain hundreds of migrants who crossed Mexico’s southern border in January and dragged and beat migrants who participated in a protest inside a migration detention center in Tapachula in March.” 

Subcomandante Marcos, the EZLN anonymous spokesperson from the Zapatista uprising until 2014, proposed the concept of “World War IV” in 1999. After the third world war, or Cold War, the Zapatistas analyzed the characteristics of what is currently a war against humanity in pursuit of capitalist profit in a globalized and interconnected world. The territory to be conquered is the entire planet, and the enemy to be destroyed is any way of existing that does not fall within market logic. The war’s strategies are not only military, but also ideological and diplomatic.

Autonomy in the middle of war

Despite being armed, the Zapatistas do not respond to violence with bullets. They have built a way of doing politics rooted in resistance to the state. Aware that in the revolutions of the twentieth century those who have died have been the peasants, the Indigenous and the poor, the Zapatistas are committed to the slow but firm construction and self-defense of their autonomy. They defend that autonomy is built from below without depending on the official authorization to exercise it, and therefore they are governed by their autonomous government structures and build their own systems of education, public health and the administration of justice.

“We will always carry resistance and rebellion in our hearts, because we are guardians of Mother Earth, we are not the owners. The earth is not ours, it belongs to all of us who fight for life.”

This autonomy draws from the legacy of Emiliano Zapata, the Flores Magón brothers and above all from the ways of life and intersubjective worldview of the Indigenous peoples that inhabit the territory of Mexico. The Zapatistas are governed by the seven principles of “to Command by Obeying”: to serve and not to serve, represent and not impersonate, build and not destroy, obey and not command, propose and not impose, convince and not win, to go down and not go up. Their peaceful civil resistance is based on the dignity, solidarity and living memory of the peoples with their antagonistic ethics to the prevailing one. The Zapatistas consider themselves the guardians of the land, not its owners; they seek justice, not revenge.

When Ernesto Zedillo sent the paramilitary group Máscara Roja to massacre the population of Acteal in 1997, their task was to kill “the Zapatista seed.” Twenty-seven years after the uprising, the seed has not been destroyed but has taken root; it has sprouted throughout the Mexican territory and continues to flourish in the minds and hearts of all those who fight against the system around the world. The five initial “Caracoles” from 2003 grew to 12 in 2019 and a total of 43 Autonomous Municipalities reside in Chiapas. To support the community of Nuevo San Gregorio, the Frayba created a new Civil Observation Camp in February of this year within the Civil Observation Brigades program, which has documented and contributed to deterring possible human rights violations since 1995.  Zapatistas there continue to organize collective work such as looms, pottery and carpentry to sustain their lives in the face of the impossibility of harvesting their land. On their visit in October, a resident declared to the caravan: “We will always carry resistance and rebellion in our hearts, because we are guardians of Mother Earth, we are not the owners. The earth is not ours, it belongs to all of us who fight for life. We were born in it, we live in it, we are going to take care of it and we are going to protect it —  and if necessary, we will die for it.”

In April 2021, a delegation of seven Zapatistas set sail on a “Tour for Life” where they will advocate for Indigenous rights in more than 20 European countries. (Daliri Oropeza/ Pie de Página)

The EZLN has the national and international support and solidarity of the Indigenous peoples integrated in the National Indigenous Council-Indigenous Government Council and the organizations and groups adhering to La Sexta. The Zapatista seed, in the midst of the war, continues to weave and intertwine in a decentralized and horizontal way. On April 30, 2021, a delegation of seven Zapatistas — four women, three men, and one nonbinary person — set sail from the Yucatan Peninsula to Europe by sailboat. From there, the Tour for Life will visit more than 20 European countries with the intention of “holding meetings, dialogues, exchanges of ideas, experiences, analyzes and evaluations among those of us who are committed, from different conceptions and in different fields, in the fight for life.”

This story was produced by War Resisters

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